OUR TIMES have been dramatically altered by two defining events: the tragedy of Sept. 11 and Hurricane Katrina.
A prescription for these times has roots in the nation's successful response to the crises of the last century. The GI Bill was an enormous success: Between 1945 and 1956, more than 8 million returning veterans received debt-free educations, low-interest mortgages, and small-business loans, making the United States, in the words of one historian, ''the predominantly middle-class nation it had always believed itself to be."
It is time for a new call to service to meet the pressing needs of the nation, reinvigorate American citizenship, and provide access to the American dream.
Our nation needs universal, voluntary national service -- the expectation that everyone should serve and the opportunity for everyone to do so -- linked to a new GI Bill that dramatically changes the life prospects of those who serve in the military and those who serve in our neediest schools and neighborhoods.
Service to the nation -- whether in the armed services or a civilian service corps -- should become a defining emblem of the United States and a civic rite of passage for all young Americans. The most commonly asked question of an 18-year-old should be: ''Where will you do your citizen service? The Army or AmeriCorps? The Marines or the National Civilian Community Corps? The Navy or the Peace Corps?"
A new GI Bill could make this promise to every young American: ''If you invest in your country, your country will invest in you. For every year you serve, America guarantees a year of tuition at a qualifying college, makes a down payment toward your first home, or provides a voucher to start a business, nonprofit organization, or IRA." Military service, which demands greater sacrifice, would garner higher benefits, but all who serve should be rewarded.
There is a new generation ready to build a stronger America. Recent research has shown that 9/11 was a transformational event for 18- to 24-year-olds: They have a significantly higher civic commitment. The tragedies of that day inspired a sharp increase in applications to the military, the Peace Corps, and AmeriCorps.
Over 16 years, led by three successive presidents, America has built a strong civilian national service system, which is now ready to be brought to scale. George H.W. Bush established the Commission on National and Community Service and the Points of Light Foundation. Bill Clinton created the Corporation for National and Community Service and AmeriCorps. George W. Bush launched the USA Freedom Corps and expanded AmeriCorps and the Peace Corps.
National service has had a profound impact on America. AmeriCorps has enabled more than 400,000 citizens to serve with more than 2,500 nonprofit and faith-based organizations. These leaders have built affordable homes, helped thousands of children to read, provided millions of hours of after-school programs, reduced gang involvement, transformed blighted lots into community gardens and playgrounds, served as role models to children at risk, and generated millions of hours of service by the volunteers they recruit. A cost-benefit study of AmeriCorps determined that every federal dollar invested results in at least $1.60 to $2.60 in direct, measurable benefits. It is time for a dramatic increase in AmeriCorps, from 75,000 annually to 1 million strong, a domestic force against poverty and hopelessness.
Around the world, over four decades, more than 175,000 Americans have served in the Peace Corps. However, the 7,700 currently in service are a far cry from President John F. Kennedy's vision of 100,000 ''citizen ambassadors." It is time to reach that goal.
Both military and civilian service provide young Americans with an opportunity to work side by side across lines of race and class. Expanding and uniting military and civilian service under one GI Bill can further close the gap between military and civilian cultures. At its widest during the Vietnam War era, this gap has diminished since 9/11. It is time to close it altogether.
A system that unites military and civilian service, launched with a new ''Uncle Sam wants you!" campaign, should offer one-stop recruitment centers in colleges, malls, neighborhood store fronts, and online. ROTC should be restored to all campuses and its mission expanded to prepare young leaders for military and civilian service. A US Civic Leadership Academy should develop civilian leaders just as the four major military academies prepare the leaders of our armed forces.
Every generation can be the ''greatest generation" -- if only it is called to serve a cause larger than self. Nothing could be more American, or more invigorating to the very idea of America.
Alan Khazei and Michael Brown are cofounders of City Year.